kung pao squid at joy luck buffet photo by carmen troesser

Review: Joy Luck Buffet in Maplewood

Joy Luck's buffet is ho-hum. The feedbag of choices includes the standard lo mein, sesame chicken, hot and sour soup, almond cookies and more than 100 other usual suspects. There is a stir-fry station where you select the meat and veggies and an employee cooks them in a capacious wok. The sushi looks forlorn, and the dessert area has the same sugared donuts and finger Jell-O you'll find at every Chinese buffet in the area. At just $7 during lunch, this budget buffet is a favorite for high school and college kids eating away their growth spurts, plate after plate.

the buffet at joy luck buffet // photo by carmen troesser

Forget the buffet and ask for the Sichuan menu. It may take a few visits for the uninitiated to get the hang of ordering from the 42-page (!) tome, printed in Mandarin and English, but your effort will be richly rewarded. Sichuan food is known for being as spicy as the devil's daughter, and the number of cartoon peppers next to each dish on the menu is a caution of its intensity. Consider the hot and sour rice noodles appetizer: The noodles are tossed in fistfuls of pepper flakes and chile oil. You may need extra napkins to wipe away happy tears while you enjoy them. For the more reluctant, classic Chengdu dandan noodles dial down the spice, add minced pork and preserved bean sprouts and use egg noodles. It's tasty, yet doesn't pack that reality-warping heat. The pork belly appetizer with garlic sauce has enough garlic to kill a coven of vampires. Indeed, the tenderness of the pork belly is lost in a one-two punch of garlic and pepper. The overall effect is like that of kimchee; for the first-timer, it's pretty funky. An appetizer of bean curd skin with dried mushrooms offered a chewy, smoky wrap made from tofu enclosing a welter of marinated shiitake mushrooms.

cumin lamb // photo by carmen troesser

An exploration of the Sichuan menu yields great rewards, like cumin lamb, a deceptively simple preparation of lamb pan-fried to the crunchy-crumbly texture of grilled gyro meat. Onions and red and green peppers add snap, and a rich bath of spices makes the dish downright addictive. Another favorite, kung pao squid, required a good 15 minutes to pick a veritable army of dried Sichuan peppers off the plate. The struggle was worth it; pliant squid and peanuts cavort in a kung pao sauce that, like a well-aged Burgundy, takes the diner to a dark, deep, complex place. Best kung pao in town? It’s been said of the Joy Luck version.

Other delicacies on the menu include pork ears, pork kidney, pork knuckle, chitterling, tripe, beef tendon, jellyfish and century eggs. The gauntlet has been thrown down for the adventurous diner. Joy Luck is also famous for its hot pot dishes; a group of diners shares and cooks the food together at the table. We would rhapsodize about it, but that sort of meal unfolds at too leisurely a pace for a Power Lunch.

employees at joy luck buffet make nearly 500 crab rangoon a day // photo by carmen troesser

Service is no-nonsense at any hour of the day, with dishes often shooting from the kitchen at breakneck speed. Tracking down a server for a water refill, however, may require some hand-waving. If you opt for the buffet, don’t be surprised to find the check dropped the minute you leave the table for your first foray. Protocol takes a back seat to practicality.

Once you order from Joy Luck’s Sichuan menu, you may never order the eatery’s buffet again. The mélange of intense spices used in the former makes for some dynamite dishes. If you like it spicy, you’ll find yourself crying literal tears of joy.